The red-faced men III: The red-faced women

Nomad woman

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. It can make the questions you were asking more interesting. In the last two posts I’ve been discussing the characterization of the early Tibetans as ‘the red-faced men’. Although the Tibetan term itself (gdong dmar can) does not specify a gender, I have been using the masculine noun. My reasoning was that the term as we find it in the original Khotanese texts derived from encounters with the Tibetan army, so I came to the conclusion that the red face decoration was applied primarily by soldiers going into battle. So much for ‘the red-faced men’.

In fact, recent archaeological evidence that I have only just now become aware of (thanks to Kazushi Iwao) clearly shows that red face decoration was worn in civilian life, and by women as well as men. In 2002, the archeaologist Xu Xinguo excavated tombs in Guolimu, a village near Delingha in Qinghai Provice (Amdo), and discovered two beautifully painted coffin boards. The wooden boards, which are believed to date from the time of the Tibetan Empire, were painted with numerous scenes from everyday life, including hunting, oath-taking and funeral rites. Many of the people featured in the painting, both men and women, have faces decorated with red.

From Wenwu 2006.7 (3)

From Wenwu 2006.7 (2)

The people depicted here are probably the Azha, who were brought into the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century. But this red face painting was not just an Azha tradition; we know that it was practised in the Tibetan court itself. The Chinese Tang Annals say that Princess Wencheng, who came to marry the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, introduced various new customs to the Tibetan court (which is portrayed by the Chinese historians, not entirely fairly, as quite uncivilized). One of her innovations was to stop the Tibetans from painting their faces red.

As the princess disliked their custom of painting their faces red, Songtsen ordered his people to put a stop to the practice, and it was no longer done. He also discarded his felt and skins, put on brocade and silk, and gradually copied Chinese civilization.

It may well be that the practice originated in the nomadic tribes of the northeast and western Tibet, and was later adapted by the Central Tibetans. Amazingly, even today a similar custom of red face painting is practised by the nomads of western Tibet. Here it is only the women who paint their faces, using a preparation made from boiled whey. The pictures here were taken by Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall, who lived with the nomads of the Changtang region for over a year from 1986-88. Goldstein and Beall observed that while nomads said that the red face makeup was used to protect the skin from sunburn, it was only used by younger women and particularly when they wanted to look good. Thus it was primarily decorative. The patterns of decoration used by these women are strikingly similar to those depicted on the ancient coffin covers.

Nomad woman applying red face makeup

So it seems that the practice of red face painting (by men and women) might have originated in Tibet’s northeast and west, and then been adopted by the early Tibetans, who later abandoned it during or after the Imperial period. Some of the western nomads, however, preserved the custom, although only among women.

And so it is simply incorrect to translate the Tibetan term gdong dmar can as ‘the red-faced men’. I should, and from now on will, use ‘the red-faced people’ or ‘the red-faced ones’. Being wrong can indeed be very interesting!

*  *  *

See also
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces
The Red-faced Men II: China or Tibet?

1. Bushell, S.W. 1880. “The Early History of Tibet: From Chinese Sources”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1880: 435-535. [p.445]
2. China Heritage Project. 2005. “New Discoveries in Qinghai”. China Heritage Newsletter 1 (online journal).
3. Goldstein, Melvyn and Cynthia Beall. 1990. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. London: Serindia Publications.
4. Luo Shiping. 2006. “A Research about the Drawing on the Coffin Board of Tubo located at Guolimu, Haixi, Qinghai Province”. Wenwu 2006.7: 68-82.
5. Yong-xian Li. 2006. “Rediscussion on the Bod-Tibetan Zhemian Custom”. Bulletin of the Department of Ethnology 25: 21-39.

1. Pictures of nomad women from Goldstein and Beall 1990: 57, 89.
2. Details from the Guolimu coffin boards from Luo Shiping 2006.

7 thoughts on “The red-faced men III: The red-faced women

  1. Dear Early,

    Dab here making a nuisance of himself again. Perhaps this little bibliography of Tibetan cosmetic practices will be fun for you to look into. I don’t think I have any of these old articles on hand. Perhaps one or another has been put up on the web by now?

    LAUFER, BERTHOLD (1874-1934), Zur Geschichte des Schminkens in Tibet, Globus, vol. 70, no. 4 (1896) 63-65.

    SCHAFER, EDWARD H., The Early History of Lead Pigments and Cosmetics in China, T’oung Pao, vol. 44 (1956), pp. 413-438.

    UNKRIG, WILHELM ALEXANDER, Kosmetik in Tibet und der Mongolei (Ein Ausflug ins Reich asiatischer Drogen), Oriens, vol. 7 (1954), pp. 265-289.

    Is it true what I suspect, that all the sources that mention the substance used to redden the face are in languages other than Tibetan? For ochre, vermillion, etc., there are several Tibetan words; I just wonder which particular Tibetan word would be used in this instance. Do any of the sources that call Tibet “Country Having Red Faced [people]” ever name the substance? Or was this only a guess on the part of the foreigners?

    A quick schmoogle search turned up some interesting advertisements for “Tibetan Poppy” lipstick. There might be marketing possibilities for “Tibetan Rouge,” too. We could keep going with this fascinating subject until we turn blue in the face.


  2. Thanks for the references; I will have a look for them. So far I have not seen an original source for the statments that ochre or vermilion were used in decorative face painting. Perhaps it is just a scholarly supposition, another myth…

    I was rather surprised to discover that boiling whey could produce such a dark red colour. Perhaps there is marketing potential for ‘Tibetan Rouge’ after all, what with the new vogue for natural cosmetics!

  3. Dear Early,

    Somebody steered me to Youtube to see this video of what is supposed to be a wildly popular song these days in Tibet. Lucky for me it has Tibetan-letter subtitles since this helps my comprehension a lot. It is quite an upliftingly proud song about Tibet, and one line stuck out in particular given the topic of your interest:

    nged gangs can gdong dmar bod pa yin //

    “We are the Tibetans, red-faced [of the land of] snow.”

    To see it, look here:

    or to give the tinyurl:

    Enjoy! The awareness of the ancient and wondrous red faced ones is alive and well nowadays, or so it would seem from this song. Any thoughts on this?


  4. Thanks. What a performance! I did enjoy that.

    Well, it seems news has yet to reach these Tibetans that ‘the red-faced ones’ are actually the Native Americans.

  5. Tibetans call themselves as red face, that is because we believe that we were children of red faced monkey (reincarnation of a budha) and a she devil who lived in the rocky mountain. And women put dark red color on their face is to protect their face from rough weather. In west tibet it is called to-cha it is made out of brown sugar, butter and somekind of wax they get from India or Nepal. You can also find woman with black tapes and colors on their face that is for allergy and congestion due high and dry land. I was born in west tibet that is why I am telling you. Thank you.

  6. Sir, I am not a writer or anything, but I am a Tibetan and I know why woman put that red color on their face, it can be both dark and light brown. It is just to protect their face from harsh (rough) weather of tibet. My late mother was so good to make those color that a lot of women ask her to make for them. It is made from some red color powder mixed with butter and brown sugar. I am from west Tibet not east, in our area it called THO Cha. On other hand, Tibetan call their race as red faced people. That is because we believe we were born from a father of a monkey who believed as incarnation of Chinrezik and a mother of a she devil. They both lived at the same rocky mountain, that is how they this relationship. Hope this will tell you some thing.

  7. Young women would naturally be the most prone to applying protective paint as this is the time in life for marrying and starting families. Protecting their beauty and at the same time creating an artistic effect: these two would co-exist naturally. One must think in a more universal fashion: many things co-exist without negating each other, and meaning moves between these things in all directions. Human beings give meaning to adornments: that which is practical can be given the aura of beauty, that which is beautiful can be awarded purpose. Symbolism, the ability to project our imagination upon the world, these are universal human achievements.

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